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Notable entrepreneurs spring from Tampa Bay area

Got to love entrepreneurs. Taking an idea and truly running with it. Better yet, failing at a few ideas first and still running with more. That dust-yourself-off intensity is a linchpin of our economy — especially here in a Tampa Bay world dominated by small businesses. That build-something enthusiasm bloomed in recent conversations with many of the founders and chief executive officers of 10 feisty area businesses vying in Ernst & Young's annual statewide competition to be crowned Entrepreneur of the Year.

The competition is judged by an independent panel of veteran entrepreneurs. Winners, to be named Thursday, will compete nationally.

I was delighted to learn that, in 23 years of annual contests, Florida kicks butt at the national level. More national winners have emerged from the Sunshine State than any other, says Ernst & Young's Mike Brennan in Tampa, who runs the statewide event.

"We get a lot of second and third serial entrepreneurs who move to Florida after they made money somewhere else," Brennan says. "Then they get antsy and start a new business."

Want to get fired up amid a gloomy recession? Talk to these can-do business folks.

Perhaps the modern kingpin of entrepreneurs, a national Ernst & Young winner who in 2005 even went on to win at the global level, is Floridian Wayne Huizenga. He founded such businesses as Blockbuster, Waste Management, Extended Stay America and AutoNation and is the only person ever to found three Fortune 1000 companies. Huizenga even named his yacht Floridian.

"Wayne Huizenga?" says a reverent Omar Soliman, founder of Tampa's College Hunks Hauling Junk. "He's like the Michael Jordan of entrepreneurs."

Tampa Bay's 10 finalists — that's 10 out of 24 finalists statewide — range from the 27-year-old junk hauler Soliman to 64-year-old Dr. Stephen Dickey. His Doctor's Walk-In Clinics pioneered no-appointment, low-cost clinics here three decades ago, and he's still expanding. Fitness/health industry CEOs include TV infomercial hall of famer Tony Little and Ironman promoter Ben Fertic.

That's serious diversity.

Every single one I talked to seems supercharged. They are enthusiastic about what they do and disciplined in how they execute their business strategy. They go out of their way to say they're thrilled and humbled to have made it this far in the competition. Those with some gray hair also acknowledge their own limits and repeatedly point out how they surround themselves with strong, smart managers.

Finalists compete based on their category of business. Winners are crowned at a black-tie event Thursday and will compete at the national level in November in Palm Springs, Calif., at a week-long entrepreneurfest. Jay Leno will host the national awards ceremony.

Past national winners include Tampa's own Outback Steakhouse founders, Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham and Tim Gannon; Michael Dell of Dell Computers; and Starbucks' Howard Schultz.

Who, among these Tampa Bay 10, might make that leap?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

College Hunks Hauling Junk, Tampa

CEO: Omar Soliman, 27

Category: Emerging

What's so special: Half the age of many. Likes Nike slogan: Just Do It. Sold 20 franchises. Picked Tampa for 1-800-JUNK-USA call center. Eager!

AnazaoHealth Corp., Tampa

CEO: Jake Beckel, 54

Category: Health services

What's so special: Seventh startup and counting. Loved Good to Great book, now Firms of Endearment on community help. Pharmacist. Customize!

Doctor's Walk-In Clinic, Tampa

Founder/VP operations: Stephen F. Dickey, M.D., 64

Category: Health services

What's so special: Eight walk-ins, rattled area status quo 29 years ago as convenient option to pricey ER. Sold it last year to Med Express. Still dedicated!

Ironman Corp., Tampa

CEO: Benjamin Fertic, 40

Category: Marketing, media

What's so special: What tops Ironman as active lifestyle brand? Anything is possible slogan. In 23 countries. Providence Equity big shareholder. Set a goal!

PostcardMania, Clearwater

CEO: Joy Gendusa, 44

Category: Marketing, media

What's so special: Brainstorms, prints, ships direct mail postcards for businesses. Working 10 times as hard in recession. Only female CEO on list. Teamwork!

Health International Corp., St. Petersburg

CEO: Tony Little, 52

Category: Marketing, media

What's so special: Infomercial legend pushing personal brand into clothing, shoes, pillows, even buffalo meat (Body by Bison). Soon, a bio book. Motivate!

Beef 'O' Brady's, Tampa

CEO: Chuck Winship, 53

Category: Retail, consumer

What's so special: Family sports pub chain born in Brandon, 270 locations, big expansion plans. Jumps into locations where others fail. Experiment!

Valet Waste, Tampa

CEO: Michael K. Ferris, 38

Category: Services

What's so special: Only doorstep, five-night-a-week trash/recycling in multihousing. Early "greenie." Goal: In every major metro in five years. Groundbreaker!

Fintech, Tampa

CEO: Scott Riley, 55

Category: Services

What's so special: Niche: Process 200,000 daily electronic invoices for alcohol between distributors, retailers. Took 17 years to reach 50 states. Perseverance!

Tribridge, Tampa

CEO: Tony DiBenedetto, 43

Category: Technology

What's so special: Fan of "fast failure." Innovate, but pull plug on no-go ideas and move on. Challenge at will. Communicate! Collaborate!

Notable entrepreneurs spring from Tampa Bay area 06/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 10:33am]
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